How the Ghost of Jerry Falwell Conquered the Republican Party
The 2012 GOP nominating contest has witnessed the final triumph of an unlikely figure. I say “unlikely” because his name hasn’t been invoked much (if at all) by any of the candidates, nor has he been mentioned frequently by the press in its campaign coverage. What’s more, he died in 2007. Yet when historians someday go looking for the intellectual and ideological father of the Obama-era GOP, I suspect they will fixate on one figure above all others: the Reverend Jerry Falwell.
That may sound odd: After all, Falwell was a social conservative; and social conservatives, while undoubtedly powerful within the GOP, are commonly thought to be just one of several key constituencies that make up the modern Republican Party. Moreover, isn’t the animating philosophy of today’s GOP deeply libertarian—and aren’t libertarians the intellectual descendants of anti-Christian thinkers like Hayek, von Mises, and Rand? Plus, you might point out, Falwell was an evangelical Protestant, and the three finalists for the GOP nomination this year are a Mormon and two Catholics. Can his influence really have been that strong?
In a word, yes. Falwell helped to lay the groundwork for the coalition of Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons that now makes up the social conservative wing of the GOP—and helped to bring this coalition of social conservatives into an even larger coalition with fiscal conservatives and foreign-policy conservatives. Moreover, it was Falwell who did more than anyone—even Ronald Reagan—to foreshadow the political style of the contemporary GOP, a style rooted in orthodoxy and disdainful of compromise. In short, if at any point during the past few years you’ve found yourself wondering how the Republican Party got to its present state, understanding the worldview of Jerry Falwell is a good place to start.
IN 1981, ONE OF Reagan’s top aides, Michael Deaver, told an interviewer that evangelicals like Falwell were welcome in the White House, but they had to come through the back door. When Falwell did come for a visit, Reagan assured him he could always come through the front door. Falwell told reporters, “Mike Deaver probably couldn’t spell ‘abortion.’”
The incident, and others like it, gave rise to a narrative that traditional conservatives like Deaver (who were more focused on fiscal matters), social conservatives like Falwell, and foreign policy hawks were three distinct groups within the Reagan coalition—all pitted against each other in a battle for influence within the party. But this narrative was far too simplistic because it grossly underestimated the degree to which these groups would eventually merge. And, in many ways, it was Falwell who presided over that merger.
Even before the 1980s, evangelicals had long supported free market economics and a strong foreign policy. Their commitment to both capitalism and a strong military was rooted in their pronounced anti-communism. Earlier evangelical preachers such as Carl McIntire in the 1950s had voiced their enthusiasm for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts. But for Falwell, the links between capitalism, foreign policy, and religion ran especially deep.